One small step…

We recently took up the carpet on the stairs, so we could have a new one fitted. When we did so, the stairs were in decent condition, if not a little grubby. Considering they were made over 100 years ago, only one was broken.

The broken tread viewed from above
The broken tread viewed from close up

The first challenge was to work out how the stairs were constructed. My research pointed to a system of slots and wedges which are accessed from behind the stairs. Fortunately, I had access (once I had cleared out the under-stair cupboard) so was able to pry off the loose-fitting panels that were covering the stairs from the back. Indeed, the intricately assembled staircase was revealed. Both the treads and risers were wedged in place, with the bottom of each riser also nailed to the back of the tread below. Some of these wedges were easily removed, others unfortunately had to be hacked out. With this done, the riser came out with just a gentle nudge, which is more than can be said for the tread. I ended up sawing this in half (easily done since the riser at the top and bottom were now removed) to then realise the treads were nailed to the strings from either side. This led me to conclude that either the whole staircase was assembled then installed in one piece on site, or it was assembled in-situ before the building of the walls on either side. Either way, the broken tread was now removed, and the pressure was on to construct the replacement.

A system of wedges is used to hold the treads and risers in place, viewed here from inside the cupbairs under the stairs.
The old tread has been removed. The inside of the under-stair cupbaird is visible.

Pine was an obvious choice, though I was unsure what material the original was made of, and whether pine would have enough strength at 25mm thick over a 770mm span. After much thought, I went for oak. Part of the reason for this was it is one of the few pieces of timber sold at the big orange DIY shop, and time was tight due to the carpet fitters arriving that week. The oak I bought was the perfect size meaning little waste.

This was an excellent opportunity for me to purchase some new tools. For cutting down to size, all I had was a basic panel saw, which would have done fine, but the finish would have been a little rough. I decided to finally get myself a circular saw. Widely considered one of the most basic power tools any DIYer should have (alongside a combi drill), I’d been waiting for an excuse to get one. I deliberated for a large time over whether to go cordless. One deciding factor was the cost of batteries. Had I gone cordless, I would have restricted myself to the Bosch pro range – not because I am a “fan boy”, but because the cordless combi and the impact wrench I already own are Bosch Pro, and they all use the same batteries. It then follows that I would have needed to buy at lease a 4Ah battery as the 1Ah batteries I already have would not last 5 minutes when ripping through oak. Added to the already higher price of cordless tools, this seemed a little excessive. Having then settled on corded, I then proceeded to violate my general rule of buying tools. I prefer to get good quality. “Buy cheap, buy twice” is the advice I normally give myself in situations like this, so when I opted to buy the cheapest circular saw I could find in B&Q, I shocked my self a little. My reasoning was as follows: to have a professional do the work would have cost in excess of £250, so even if the saw only lasted long enough to do this one job, it would be worth it  – financially speaking. It turned out to do a decent job, and for £40, I have no complaints.

The other tool I purchased was a router. Whilst it seems a little specialist for someone who dabbles in woodwork, it really made a big difference to the quality of the finish. There were two reasons a router made sense for this little project. The firs, I needed the front of the new tread to be rounded over along its length. Secondly, I needed a groove from one side to the other in which to slot the riser from below. Both were achieved with extreme ease using the router I bought (again, the cheapest at £50) with a set of 6 bits. I must say It is one of the most satisfying tools to use, especially given the alternative would have been to chisel the groove out by hand.

The piece of oak marked up ready for cutting.

Using the old picnic bench on the garden as a work bench, it took no time at all to fabricate the stair tread, and installation was very straightforward, using the salvageable wedges I’d removed earlier and making new ones to replace those I had hacked out.

A side view of the finished replacement tread. The grroove and rounded face of the tread are clearly visible.

Once completed, I was so pleased with the result that I was quite sad it would be hidden away under carpet, and that there would be no evidence except for these pictures.

A close-up of the new tread being fitted. The gap between the slot and the new tread shows that the wedges have not yet been inserted underneath.

Tackling this project got me thinking about where my limits are in terms of what I am prepared to do myself and when I would choose to get a professional in. I was rather nervous about this job, though in hindsight, it was relatively straightforward.

The new tread fitted, before the risers were put back in place.
All finished. The replacement tread is in place and the risers above and below have been re-inserted.

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